Song of Surrender

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

SRUTI FICTION

VEENAI BHAVANI

By Kalki (1942)

Translated by Gowri Ramnarayan

(Continued from blog post on 24 July 2012)

‘Bhavani’s mother did take every care of her daughter. Yet misfortune could not be averted.


‘Bhavani’s mother Poonthottam Brahadambal had inherited the great wealth of many generations. She was also famous for her virtuous conduct. She had a relationship with a single man of distinguished status. She was like a chaste wife to him. When he died, she turned her mind to God and to acts of piety.

‘The daughter had the same qualities. She came to the stage with the sacred ash on her forehead. She sang nothing but songs of devotion. Elaborate ritual worship was offered daily in their home. Even wagging tongues declared that Bhavani was lost in a spiritual quest.

‘Brahadambal wished to get her daughter married to a respectable man. But Bhavani insisted that she had vowed to remain single, and like the saint-poet Andal, she too would find her refuge only in the feet of the Lord.

‘Neither mother nor daughter realized her ambition. Things went awry, all because of a few casual words spoken by one man to another.

‘Once, when Bhavani concluded her concert at the Tiruvarur temple and was about to get into her coach, she happened quite by chance to overhear a man talking to his friend as they walked past her. “You keep harping on her music! Never mind the music. What about her looks, the charm that oozes from her face?”

‘When Bhavani heard this, she couldn’t help bursting into laughter. The speaker turned to see who laughed. He was embarrassed to find Bhavani standing close by. Bhavani got into her coach quickly and drove away.

‘Well, this turned out to be fateful. Why should that particular man have spoken just those words in the dark as Bhavani was getting into her carriage? Why should his remarks have fallen on her ears?

‘As soon as Bhavani went home, she asked her mother why she had forgotten to pack her handkerchief for the concert that day. The mother was silent, dismissing it as a meaningless query.

‘“It was very stuffy in the hall. I perspired all the time,” explained Bhavani. “But listen to this, Amma, my face was dripping with sweat. A man who saw it thought I oozed charm!” she laughed. Later mother and daughter would often narrate this incident to me. But what began in fun and laughter ended in disaster.

‘I knew the man. He was a landowner in a village called Tumbaivanam near Mannargudi. Gopalsami Mudaliar was quite young. In fact I had played the tavil at his wedding. He had been married for five or six years when Bhavani saw him. He had children as well.

‘Fate decided to bring him and Bhavani together. I don’t know how they met again, or how their relationship grew. When fate ordains something, it also clears the way. It was rumoured that Bhavani had strayed from her spiritual quest. And Tumbaivanam Gopalsami Mudaliar’s name came to be bandied about throughout Thanjavur district.

‘These rumours brought me little comfort. You know my views. I believe that the perpetuation of the devadasi community and profession is a social evil which must be totally abolished. Why should things have taken such a turn? Couldn’t Bhavani have entered into a respectable marriage? I felt very sorry for Gopalsami Mudaliar’s wife and children. More than ever I became anxious that this connection would have an adverse effect on Bhavani’s divine music.

‘Thank God, that did not happen, Gopalsami Mudaliar was a true connoisseur. He was also extremely proud of Bhavani’s musical gifts. Well do I remember what he said to me once. “The Creator did not make Bhavani as he made other human beings. He has shaped her out of Kalyani and Mohanam and Senjurutti. Wait and see. When Bhavani dies, her body will melt and waft away into ragams.”

‘“That may be,” I answered him. “But you and I won’t see it. Bhavani will sing for many years after our time.”

‘God has not given us the power to see into the future. If he had, would there be any sorrow in the world? Or joy for that matter?

‘Yes, I was describing Bhavani’s music. It scaled newer peaks. But to my ears accustomed to her style, many surprising changes were discernible. One concert was not like another. One day the melody would swell in exhilaration. You could hear in it the gladness of bird song welcoming the dawn. And the joyous clamour of the waves as they rose to greet the full moon. On other occasions, the listener’s heart was filled with melancholy without cause. The poignant wail of the child torn from its mother and the devotee’s anguished cry for the Lord were alike audible in that music. You wondered if she played on the strings of the veena or on the heart strings of the listeners.

‘At first I found this puzzling and mysterious. Slowly I understood something of the matter.

‘What we term love and affection are inexplicable phenomena. What do human beings attain through love? Pain? Joy? Indescribable misery? Immeasurable rapture?

‘Whatever I heard about Bhavani and Tumbaivanam Mudaliar raised these questions in my mind. It was impossible to say whether they had more days of happiness together or spent their time in suffering and squabbles. Her mother told me she thought Bhavani was bewitched. Sometimes she would snarl at everyone and throw a tantrum over trifles. She would shout and scream. Or alternately, she would sit still for hours, her face unwashed, hair uncombed…

At other times her behaviour was exactly the opposite. She would adorn herself splendidly and indulge in excited laughter. When I heard all this I understood somewhat the reasons for the changes in her music. Therefore, when her mother asked me if she should call an exorcist to come and talee a look at Bhavani, I had no hesitation in answering her, “You don’t need chants and spells. In a little while, everything will be all right.”

‘Two or three years went by. In that period Tumbaivanam Mudaliar’s financial affairs became a mess. His enemies increased in number. It was to be expected that many rich landowners would have their eyes on Bhavani. Now they ganged together and vowed to destroy Gopalsami Mudaliar.

‘At first it was a court case in connection with the temple committee. Gopalsami Mudaliar was one of the three trustees of the temple. Not content with excluding Mudaliar from the committee’s transactions, the other trustees insulted him in public during the temple festival. The enraged Gopalsami went to court.

‘That was the beginning of a whole chain of civil and criminal cases in which he became involved. The neighbouring landlords and aristocrats were determined to bring Gopalsami to ruin. Gopalsami’s debts mounted day by day. Every year, he sold yet another piece of land.”

(Reproduced from KALKI Selected Stories Centenary Edition, Penguin Books, 1999)
Copyright this version Gowri Ramnarayan 2012

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